Torres del Paine


Location: Santiago, Chile
Lat/Long: 33.4500° S, 70.6667° W
Weather Conditions: 68F (20C) Clear

Torres del Paine
Full Field Update #3

View the full photo gallery that accompanies this post.

Upon leaving the driest place on earth en route to what some describe as the most beautiful place on earth, we were filled with anticipation for the beauty of the landscape and the interviews with the people we would encounter there. We were certain this expedition was going to be one that we would truly never forget…
Map of South America showing the team's route there.

The Earthducation team is continuing its travels in South America, capturing education and sustainability narratives from a broad array of individuals across Peru and Chile. We traveled from Lima to the Amazon Basin in Peru, and then on to the Atacama Desert in Chile, before finishing our journey in a truly unique and phenomenally beautiful region: Patagonia. This full update details our stay in Torres del Paine National Park, part of the Patagonian region of southern Chile.

Day 10: October 29

The long road from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama.

We awoke early, knowing that the days ahead would be filled with many hours of travel but also some exciting new experiences. We traveled first by bus from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama, where we would board a flight to Santiago. As we watched the desert landscape pass and reflected on the interviews we’d captured within this region, we understood how one of the main concerns within this region is water.

The Salar de Atacama region is a closed system, meaning that water within the region leaves only by evaporation, evapotranspiration, or human use. The obvious challenge for this region, then, is to identify ways water here can be used for development while still sustaining the region without irreversible damage to the natural environment – a challenge expressed by all the individuals we interviewed here.

Once at the airport, after about a two-hour delay, we boarded our plane for Santiago, a 3-hour flight almost directly south of Calama. Flying into Santiago at sunset was stunning as we viewed the mountains of the Andes to the east and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west. The Andes mountains within the region around Santiago are quite high, with the tallest being the Tupungato volcano at 6,570 m (21,555 ft).

This evening we stayed at a hotel literally across the street from the airport as we would be catching our next flight, to Punta Arenas, in the early morning.

Day 11: October 30

Punta Arenas from the air.

Punta Arenas, known as the “sandy point,” is the capital of Chile’s southernmost region and is located on the north shore of the Strait of Magellan. If you view the location of Punta Arenas on a map, you can see why the geopolitical importance of this small city has remained high over the past two centuries, due to its logistic importance in accessing the Antarctic Peninsula.

Our 3.5-hour flight was just the beginning of our travels today, as we still had a 5-hour drive to reach Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, our final destination. The park encompasses over 242,000 hectares (597,595 acres) in southern Chile. UNESCO declared Torres del Paine a world biosphere reserve in 1978; biosphere reserves are considered learning sites for sustainable development.

Our first full view of the peaks in Torres del Paine.

If you’ve ever visited or viewed photos of Patagonia, you can understand how we enjoyed every minute of our drive through this landscape, traveling through a steppe region with sheep and horses scattered about, to the beautiful iconic mountain peaks of Torres del Paine. Millions of years ago, successive waves of geological and glaciological phenomena created the spectacular land formations in this area, including the namesake Torres del Paine series of magma and granite peaks that tower up to 3,000 meters (9,843 feet), and the Cuernos del Paine, which rise to over 2,000 meters (6,562 feet).

Patagonia is a region located at the southern end of South America, shared by the countries of Argentina and Chile (see this great National Geographic map of Patagonia).

The name Patagonia comes from the word patagón used by the explorer Magellan in 1520 when he described the first people his expedition team saw, thought to be giants. It is now believed the Patagons were actually Tehuelche people, with an average height of 180 cm (5′11″) compared to a 155 cm (5′1″) average for Spaniards at the time, so they would indeed have seemed tall in comparison.
Gauchos alongside the road en route to Torres del Paine.

The Chilean part of Patagonia, where we were located, embraces the southern provinces and regions of Valdivia, Llanquihue, Aysén and Magallanes, including the west side of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, and Palena Province in Los Lagos Region.

We arrived at Explora Hotel Salto Chico (which would serve as our home base during our stay in Torres del Paine) just as the sun was setting. The views of the Andes were breathtaking. From the gauchos herding cattle next to the road, to the towering peaks of Torres del Paine, we knew we were in for an unparalleled treat.

Day 12: October 31

Andres Millartureo, a gaucho at Explora.

Our goal during our stay in Patagonia was to explore the landscape and speak with the people as much as we possibly could in the short time we had there. Our first excursion connected us with a gaucho, the equivalent of an American cowboy, who guided us by horseback through the region of Lake Toro. We rode through both forests and grasslands, taking in the beautiful views of Lake Toro and the Serrano River. We were hoping to also see the peaks of the Andes, but it rained the entire time, with low-hanging clouds. After our ride, we interviewed our gaucho, Andres Millartureo, and our guide, Magadelena.

Charlie and Aaron getting geared up for the horseback ride.

Magadelena (Magda), who was born in Punta Arenas, shared that her life dream was to work in the park. Her favorite thing about the Patagonian region is the beauty of it, which literally changes every day with the weather. Magda said, “I just love this place. It’s a magic place.” She also emphasized that education is necessary and is a right for everyone, which is a challenge in Chile.

Magda said, “Here in Chile it’s a big problem now with the universities as it’s very expensive and not everyone can afford it. Only if you have enough money. It’s expensive even for people who have money.” She also noted that within Patagonia there are few universities and very few career options.

Magdalena, our horseback guide, Torres del Paine.

Magda traveled to Santiago for her education, which was “extremely expensive.” In describing her life in Patagonia, she explained, “We have a different life here as compared to the big city. We have a family life. We are very calm people. Very friendly. That’s my life.”

When reflecting on sustainability in Chile, Magda shared, “Sustainability in Chile is a new concept. People talk about it a great deal, but not in the right way.” She emphasized that people need to work with the local people and help them take care of nature. “It’s a beautiful land and we have to care as it is not forever.”

Pehoe waterfall outside Hotel Salto Chico, Torres del Paine.
Magda explained that one of the main challenges within Patagonia is the number of tourists. “We need some politics in the park where we receive a small number of people, instead of millions. We have problems controlling the number of people. We have problems because there are not enough rangers and people are not cautious. That’s the reason we have drastic events such as fires.” She concluded, “Education is the base of everything. If you don’t educate people, they don’t know how to take care of nature. It’s the biggest challenge.”
Mariele, our guide, en route to Cerro Condor (Condor Lookout).

Our next exploration within the park was a 5 km hike to the top of Cerro Condor (Condor Lookout), northeast of our hotel in Torres del Paine. Our guide, Mariele Urra, explained early in the hike that more than 28,000 hectares (approximately 70,000 acres — close to 70,000 football fields) of the park burnt in January 2012 due to the actions of a careless tourist. The tourist lit his toilet paper on fire rather than carrying it out of the park as he had been instructed to do, and in turn started a raging wildfire that devastated a large portion of Torres del Paine. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, hotels, and campsites as a result of the fire, and 171 homes were destroyed.

The trail to the top of Condor Lookout.

We immediately grasped the wildfire’s impact, as nearly all the trees at the start of our hike were bare and much of the ground was still charred, creating an eerie landscape reminiscent of scenes from Lord of the Rings.

Mariele took us to a small area where reforestation efforts were underway to regrow native trees. These trees will take approximately 300 years to grow to the size of the trees that were destroyed in the fire. Mariele expressed, however, that she did not agree with the reforestation efforts and that the authorities should “let nature take its course, otherwise they are just creating an unnatural, manmade botanical garden.” She also shared that “if the trees will take 300 years to regrow, what’s the hurry – nature will figure it out as it always has.”
Justin atop Cerro Condor (Condor Lookout), Torres del Paine.

Halfway to Cerro Condor, the trail began to weave its way around switchbacks up a very steep hill. We climbed more than 250 meters (850 ft.) to the top, where we took in the beautiful vista of Lake Pehoe and Los Cuernos (the horns) of Torres del Paine. Mariele showed us where several condor nests have been found, noting that on a “lucky” day hikers would see the condors.

Luck was on our side as within minutes of reaching the peak, a condor graciously sailed within 20 meters of us, gliding for more than a minute without a single wing flap. Soon after, its mate and baby (identified by our guide) followed suit, providing us with a spectacular exhibit set against the backdrop of the Torres del Paine peaks, a sight we will never forget.

An Andean Condor sweeping past during our descent from Condor Lookout.

The Andean Condor, larger than its California Condor cousin, is a large black vulture with a ruff of white feathers surrounding the base of its neck and a wingspan of 9 to 10.5 feet! We were also fortunate to see two Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, who, like the condors, seemed to be enjoying the nearly 40mph winds on top of Cerro Condor. We tried to capture a few photos, but were blown over by the forceful winds and had to make our way back down the trail to more relaxed conditions.

Upon arrival back at our hotel, we interviewed our guide Mariele, a 27 year-old former designer, photographer, and birder from Santiago. Mariele expressed that she became bored sitting in front of the computer during her design job and wanted to “get out in nature and explore the world” – a dream shared by many 9-5 designers, but which very few ever realize. Mariele has been a guide at Explora for four months and has no ambitions of leaving in the near future.

Interview with Mariele, our guide for the trek up to Condor Lookout.
For Mariele, education is “trying to give the clues for others to interpret for themselves . . . and know the world that is out there, why we are here, and what we are doing here.” For the Torres del Paine region, Mariele shared that “the most important thing is conservation as we have a lot of virgin lands in Patagonia, one of the places with the least amount of human footprints in the world . . . so if we don’t conserve it very well, it will end.”

Day 13: November 1

Aaron hiking en route to Grey Glacier.

A trek to Grey Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field was our goal for today. We again awoke early, this time to catch a 30-minute boat ride across Lake Pehoé to the Pehoé Refuge. The wind and rain was blistering, and our catamaran was taking on waves over five feet high that provided an exciting ride before we even began our hike.

Mountains looming over Grey Glacier.

We arrived at the refuge and started into an 8-mile hike. It was not your run-of-the-mill hike. It was literally pouring rain, and the wind was blowing so strong it reminded Aaron of the Arctic. During our trek, we encountered a multitude of stunning landscapes, everything from charred forests damaged by the aforementioned wildfire, to absolutely awe-inspiring views of Grey Lake, the Southern Ice Field, the Paine Massif, and the Olguin Mountains.

After lunch at a small backpackers’ hostel near Grey Lake, we boarded a boat that would transport us across the lake for a close-up view of the glacier wall. Grey Glacier was phenomenal. The strong blues of the ice set against the gray sky, the lake, and the mountains was captivating, and the glacier seemed almost alive as it shifted and calved, the icy remains of which floated in the lake around us.

Day 14: November 2

A rare Huemul rests outside Explora, Torres del Paine.

Before embarking on our next exploration via horseback, we interviewed Guillermo Parra, the manager at Explora Hotel Salto Chico. Guillermo is a Venezualan citizen who grew up in Peru. He discussed the importance of Explora being able to understand and contribute to conservation — that is, how to “preserve the beauties so everyone can see it.” Guillermo noted that local people from the nearest town of Puerto Natales didn’t start coming to the park until recently. Now, both locals and foreign tourists are travelling to the region to “get inspired, to see [Torres del Paine] and appreciate nature.”

Guillermo expressed that the importance of education is to “love every day, to get the chance to understand people, learn from people, to learn about different cultures, to respect everyone and their space.” When discussing sustainability, he shared that one of the biggest challenges is for everyone to understand that “nature is fragile, to respect the park,” which is the education they are trying to provide to visitors. Regarding how education influences sustainability, Guillermo said, “Teach, teach, learn, learn, that’s the only way if we want to survive. If we want our children and grandchildren to understand. If we don’t take care, it may be too late.”
A gaucho from Santiago joining us on our second horseback ride.

In an attempt to further capture the landscape and people in this beautiful park, we pursued yet another horseback ride. This time we were fortunate to experience clear weather as we crossed the Serrano prairie and along the turquoise waters of the Serrano River, which provided us with a stunning view of the snowy peaks of Mount Balmaceda. We rode this time with two gauchos plus an Explora guide, Lues Matta.

Lues Matta, Explora guide, during an interview with Charlie.

After an exhilarating ride, we sat down with Lues back at the stable. Lues commented that he believes Chile is still working toward the idea of sustainability and that within Patagonia, “tourism is a new thing. We are trying to do the best thing to respect the nature. We have much more to do and we are just learning.” He continued, “With a beautiful place like this, who knows what it will be like in two years. We need to get back to our roots.”

Lues concluded, “We need to think twice on what we call progress in all the world.”

Day 15: November 3

The morning of our departure from Torres del Paine was more than bittersweet. We were supremely happy with our experiences and our interviews, and surely did not want to leave this awe-inspiring and beautiful place. Nevertheless, we loaded the van at 7:30 for our 5-hour van ride back to Punta Arenas, where we would catch a 7-hour flight to Santiago via Puerto Montt.

Day 16: November 4

Aaron and Charlie at the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park.

And that brings us to the conclusion of Expedition 4: South America. After a great night’s rest, we are completing the final update for the expedition here in the beautiful city of Santiago, Chile. What a trip it’s been!

We hope you have enjoyed following along with us as we explored education and sustainability in the Amazon, the Atacama, and Patagonia. Check back to to enjoy the full interviews from this expedition and stay updated with the latest happenings related to education and sustainability worldwide. Also, make sure you sign up with your email to receive notifications about Expedition 5: Asia and all future Earthducation events!

Final Stats

Communities and Cities Visited: 16
Interviews Captured: 50+
Gigabytes of Media Captured: 394 GB
Videos Captured: 624 Clips (10 hours, 23 minutes)
Means of Transportation: Foot, Plane, Motocar, Boat, Car, Canoe
Total Flights Taken: 9
Friends Made: 385,742,554 (population of South America)
Condors Seen: 8
Huemul Seen: 1 (only 500 in park)
Total Miles Driven: 1,430K (889 Miles)
Photos Taken: 8,348

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